Book Review: Enduring Bonds by Philip N. Cohen

35580263Review by Anna J. Clutterbuck-Cook

Readers of Dósis may be familiar with the Family Inequality blog launched by sociologist of the family Philip N. Cohen in 2009 and still active today. In the interest of full disclosure, I became aware of Cohen’s work when we were both engaged in online dialogue with (and critique of) the conservative scholar-activists around the issue of same-sex marriage and queer parenting in the years around the Windsor and Obergefell decisions. I have long enjoyed his contributions to these difficult struggles around policy and family welfare, both for his unapologetically anti-oppression politics and his data-driven analysis. Cohen’s latest book, Enduring Bonds: Inequality, Marriage, Parenting, and Everything Else that Makes Families Great and Terrible (University of California Press, 2018) pulls together pieces from Family Inequality that cluster around certain themes and presents them coherently as part of an overall assessment of “the place of families in the system of inequality, with recurring emphasis on the question of who gets what kind of family, and the consequences of that social ordering” (5).

Each chapter comes with a brief introduction to the theme followed by the blog posts — revised and updated — clustered around that theme. There are eight thematic chapters altogether: parenting, single mothers and poverty, marriage promotion, marriage equality, gender difference, gender inequality, race, and a final chapter on feminism and sexuality. It may go without saying (though I’ll say it anyway) that all of these issues intersect with one another in ways that make each chapter — and subsection within each chapter — unique yet deeply interconnected.

One of Cohen’s recurring concerns is the relationship between sociological research and popular discourse around the creation, reshaping, and dissolution of families and family norms. The chapter on marriage equality (“Marriage Equality in Social Science and the Courts”) takes as its focus the work of University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus, whose research — widely discredited by his fellow sociologists — continues to circulate in legal arguments against queer parents as well as in popular culture narratives about modern sexual cultures and marriage norms. This chapter also highlights what researchers have long observed about the anti-queer religious right: that their concerns have less to do with specific same-sex desires or acts than they do with the way LGBTQ people challenge the binary, patriarchal gender norms — the theory of complementarity — that order society. “In their legal efforts,” Cohen observes, “the antiequality social scientists always returned to the gender difference of parents as their main concern” (105). For Regnerus and others who accept this premise — of distinctly-gendered people who must balance one another out for society to succeed — queer and feminist families represent an existential threat to the social order.

Inequality is perhaps most starkly observed along the lines of race and class in modern America. While marriage promotion continues to thrive as a proposed solution to poverty (with little empirical data to support that assertion), the most straightforward solution to poverty — redistribution of wealth to promote widespread social welfare — remains deeply unpopular. In part, this is because poverty in America has been racialized and, at the population level, white people in the U.S. are resistant to supporting social policies that they perceive as disproportionately benefiting black families particularly, and other people of color more generally. As the current widespread abuse of migrant families at the U.S. borders starkly demonstrates, only some families are understood as legitimate and worthy of social investment. Chapters 2 and 7 focus directly on these themes, but they recur throughout.

Cohen does not mince words when it comes to highlighting the ways in which inequality is the result of purposeful policy decisions made by those who hold structural power. When writing about the conservative argument that “money spent on means-tested programs is wasted because poor people refuse to get married (and get jobs),” Cohen straight-up calls their position “stupid and evil” (47). Deliciously for this queer reader, he calls out Regnerus’ theory of gender complimentarity and the sexual marketplace for (among many other weaknesses) utterly failing to account for lesbian sex and relationships: “What about lesbians? Oh, that. …Regnerus indeed has a theory of lesbianism and — surprise — it is that women are ruining society (again), this time by destroying sexuality itself” (196).

Enduring Bonds was purposefully assembled to be read in the classroom (7-8) but is written in very accessible plain-language prose that makes the work legible to the non-specialist while also not compromising on the rigor of analysis demanded by complex population-level data and assessment of policy success (or failure). Highly recommended to those interested in how socioeconomic inequality is transmuted through and by our families; our political moment, perhaps now more than ever, demands that we interrogate the question of who “gets to” be a family (and what families we do or don’t protect, as a society) from an unapologetic position of social justice advocacy. Cohen offers useful data and arguments for us to draw on in that struggle.  

Anna J. Clutterbuck-Cook is the review editor for Dósis. 


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